by Stephen Tall on August 29, 2014
Professor of classics at the University of Cambridge
Reason: for taking a stand against Twitter ‘trolls’ and then giving them a second chance
This series has taken an unannounced summer break. Partly my inertia, mostly I’ve found myself scratching around these past few weeks searching for Liberal Heroes and drawing a blank amist what has been an unrelentingly depressing summer in international affairs.
That’s a little unfair: Sir John Major, for example, deserves a mention as a Conservative prepared to praise immigrants unambiguously as “people with guts and the drive to travel halfway across the world in many cases to better themselves and their families”. So, too, does another Conservative, Michael Fabricant for his work to lift the restrictions on gay men donating blood: “Against this background of huge social change in the cause of equality, it is still forbidden for a sexually active gay man to donate blood.”
But it was Mary Beard who prompted this column to come out of hibernation. This Guardian article explains why:
The Cambridge University professor, one of the country’s foremost classicists who has fought a very public battle about online etiquette after receiving a torrent of abuse on Twitter, said she has taken to befriending her vilifiers. They include the university student Oliver Rawlings, whom she publicly named and shamed in July last year after he sent her an abusive message. Speaking in an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Beard revealed the pair had remained in touch after he took her to lunch to apologise for sending her a tweet that read: “You filthy old slut” followed by a derogatory comment about her genitalia. Beard retweeted it to her 47,000 followers to out her abuser, but said she had now taken to writing job recommendations for Rawlings so he didn’t suffer in the long term for “one moment of idiocy”.
“He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.” She added: “In general, I am more concerned to be sure that people don’t use the internet in this way (or don’t do so again) than to seek ‘punishment’.” Beard’s tactic of naming-and-shaming also prompted Rawlings to make a public apology on his own Twitter account, writing: “I sincerely apologise for my trolling. I was wrong and very rude. Hope this can be forgotten and forgiven. I feel this had been a good lesson for me. Thanks 4 showing me the error of my ways.”
Not everyone will feel able to take on Professor Beard’s mantle, over-look the rudeness of a misogynist coward hiding behind a Twitter avatar, and attempt to engage him in mature debate; and by no means every ‘troll’ will respond in a way which makes such an attempt worthwhile. But for her willingness to educate (and his in learning) Mary Beard is this week’s Liberal Hero.
* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.